He was one of the last few people on the streets. As he walked with hurried steps toward the subway station, the young man heard the crashing noise of an iron grate being yanked across a storefront. Otherwise the night was still. Even the Salvation Army bell-ringers had gone home.
He was uneasy being alone on the streets. It reminded him of another time, in a place far from where he now lived. Late on that other night, he had left home heading for the riverboat terminal where he hoped to catch the midnight motor launch to the south of the country. But the streets were deserted in a way that suggested everyone else knew something he did not. Unable to find transportation across town, he started to walk. After a few blocks, he changed his mind and turned back. Minutes after he reached his house, cannons and machine guns shattered the quiet of the night as military troop carriers stormed though the city. Anyone caught in the open was shot. Three days later during a short break in the curfew, he learned that the passengers waiting at the terminal had been among the military’s first victims.
He pushed aside those memories. That other night was nothing like this. Tonight the plaza was deserted for very ordinary reasons: a heavy snowstorm had been predicted. It would be the second in a row.
On a night like this, he would not have normally chosen to come downtown on a shopping trip. He would have stayed home in the warmth of his apartment. But shortly after he’d eaten that evening, he remembered that he’d been invited to Christmas dinner by his host family. It struck him that he had forgotten to buy gifts for them. He couldn’t see showing up empty-handed or canceling at this late date. He rushed out, hoping to return before the snowstorm hit. He was lucky. He managed to breeze through the two stores where he made his purchases.
A light snow was already falling. His heart did a simple little dance. He wasn’t particularly fond of snow, even less of the chilly temperatures that came with it. But there was something delightful in seeing the lighting displays of the shopping district filtered through the snowflakes that were softly coming down. The cold didn’t bother him as much as it had last year. Perhaps it was because he had found a thicker parka and warmer cap and gloves to keep his ears and fingers from freezing. His legs, covered only in jeans, were a bit cold, but he could bear that if he didn’t have to stay outside for long.
He walked past a group of shadows gathered under a dimly lit awning. The shadows exchanged words with one another. Their words were like pebbles tossed into the air. One or two of them had sharp edges, and they bruised the skin of the quiet night. The man passing by heard the harshness in those words, but they didn’t register. To him, it was just a murmur of voices coming from a bunch of drunks. He heard a bottle fall on the cement sidewalk with a sharp clunk.
As he walked into the subway station and down the steps, he became aware that the muttering voices had followed him. Now those words with the sharp edges caught his attention. One voice rose above the others. There was crispness in the tone of that voice that suggested authority.
The young man quickened his footsteps. He felt in his pockets. There were no coins. Shit! He would have to get change. He took out his wallet and pulled out the first bill that his fingers touched. As he passed it to the clerk inside the booth, he noticed that it was a ten-dollar bill. Damn! The attendant took forever to make the change. Meanwhile the shadows had reached the bottom of the steps. He looked out of the corner of an eye and saw that they had materialized into a gang of white rowdies, mostly boys pretending to be men but with a couple of men acting like boys thrown in for good measure.
Just as he was about to step into the walkway that led to the Red Line bound for Harvard, he heard them yell something in his direction. The words hit him like a rock.
“Hey, you fuckin’ spic!”
Spic? Shaheen let out his breath, and the tautness in his muscles relaxed. The rock must not have been meant for him. He had been long enough in the U.S. to know what the word meant, so he looked around to see who they were shouting at. But he saw no one other than the gang making its way toward him. A few jumped the turnstiles, the rest swaggered through the gate next to the booth. The attendant did not come out to challenge them.
Shaheen would pay for letting down his guard.
“Yeah, you, you fuckin’ spic!”
A man in a green baseball jacket ran right up behind him. Shaheen felt the foul spray from the man’s bark on his left cheek. His entire body tensed up. He took a kick on his legs from a booted toe, the wound feeling like a dull knife stabbing into his calf muscle. His knees buckled, and he nearly stumbled. He did not fall. His eyes filled up with water and he could no longer see clearly. His assailants became a splash of colors: the green and blue and maroon of baseball jackets. Someone jerked out of his grip the bag of gifts he’d purchased. He felt a punch to the side of his head, and the cap on his head was tossed off. The next blow came as a stinging slap on his ears.
Now Shaheen could no longer make out the words they were yelling at him. Their edges had become dulled again. When he regained his hearing a few moments later, the words were no longer pebbles. Nor rocks. They had been sharpened into knives.
“Spics and niggers, you don’t b’long here.”
“Stay out of Southie.”
“Get the fuck outta Boston!”
“Go back to the jungle.”
Spic? Nigger? Shaheen wasn’t Puerto Rican or black. He was still new to Boston, but something told him that this was not a case of mistaken identity and that his assailants were not looking for a lesson in geography. He knew that South Boston and some other neighborhoods were unsafe for black people, but Shaheen had never imagined that the danger would spill over to him. He was just an international student here. Wasn’t this a city said to be friendly to students from all over the world? Wasn’t it Christmastime?
His assailants continued to hammer his body with kicks and punches. The kicks hurt more, since his legs didn’t have the protection that the parka provided his upper body. His mind stubbornly refusing to accept what his body was absorbing, Shaheen found himself unable to speak or act. What little resistance his body put up was entirely instinctive. A foot took a step here to evade a kick. An arm lifted there to fend off a punch to his face. His mouth voiced the word “No.”
Then he realized that the gang was not trying to beat him up in one spot. They were pushing him forward toward the Red Line platform. He heard the screech of a train’s brakes as it rounded a corner. It finally dawned on him where this was all leading. He tried to slow down. Then the kicks and punches got worse. But when he let himself be pushed forward, he panicked at the thought of the fate that they were preparing for him.
His heart pounded faster. He would have screamed for help, but no one else was around. Think, he told himself, there’s got to be a way out of this. During the war back home, he had escaped death at the hands of the military more than once—surely he was not going to die as a bystander in someone else’s war.
It was then that he noticed the sign for the passageway that led to the Orange Line headed for Forest Hills. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that if he ran in that direction, they might not follow him all the way. Or perhaps he might even find people who could save him from his attackers.
He lunged forward, and drawing on every bit of strength he could find in his pummeled body, he made a dash for the Orange Line. For one instant the gang was caught off guard. But they soon figured out what he was doing. Their leader shouted out, “Get him! He’s headed for the nigger line.”
This time their drunkenness was in Shaheen’s favor. Only a few of them were able to pursue him, and even then they had a hard time keeping up. His parka and boots slowed him down, and every bruise on his body felt like someone was jabbing an open wound with a red-hot poker. Shaheen was glad that he’d kept himself limber by regular jogs around the Fenway. Still, today he was thankful that the Orange Line platform was not too far away.
When he arrived there, a train was taking on passengers. Only one or two people were left to board. As he came within their view, Shaheen finally let out the scream he’d kept inside himself for so long. A hoarse cry for help escaped out of his exhausted lungs. A tall black woman in a leather coat looked in his direction. In a fluid movement almost like a trained dancer, she turned on her heels, rapidly stepped toward him, grabbed his arm, and pulled him hard into the open doors of the train.
The doors slammed shut and the train lurched out of the station. Shaheen and his rescuer were now inside a mostly empty train compartment on the Orange Line headed toward Roxbury. Still holding his arm, she helped him find his balance in the moving train. She led him to a vacant seat along the wall and sat herself down a few inches away at an angle to him. When she removed her hand from his shoulder, they both noticed that she had blood on her fingertips. In his reflection in the glass window across the car, Shaheen saw that his face had begun to puff out in those places where he had taken direct blows.
The woman took out a tissue from her purse and wiped off the blood from her fingers. Her gaze returned to his face and she laid her hand back on his arm. Shaheen welcomed the touch. The train was warm and there were only a few people in the compartment, all of them black. The rhythm of his breathing and his heartbeat slowed down, but he was still having trouble focusing on his surroundings. The woman was talking but he could not hear her words.
She nudged his arm and in a slightly raised voice, asked, “Hey, can you hear me?”
He nodded his head. With his hands, he brushed off tears from his face. He weakly mumbled, “Thank you. You saved my life.”
Once again he tuned out her reply. While he sought other words to express his gratitude to her, he discovered that words simply would not form in his mouth. It was just like that day last winter when he had his first experience with subzero temperatures. His mouth had frozen so cold that he had been unable to form a single coherent sound.
Shaheen wanted to engage her, but his thoughts were still back there in the subway station they had left behind. How had it come to pass, he wondered, that tonight he had barely escaped death in front of a train? The last few times when he had come so close to death, he was at least familiar with the contours of the political territory. His people were fighting for their freedom, and while it was not fair that an unarmed people would be met with guns and bullets, he still understood the price a nation paid for defiance and insurrection. But now he was in the U.S., where he had simply come to go to graduate school. He had made no enemies, and his biggest battles had to do with schoolwork. Perhaps the whites and blacks in this country had their conflicts, how did he end up in the middle of that? Simply because his skin was brown? Was that all it took?
By this time the train had emerged from underground and was on the elevated section of its route. The snowstorm outside was now raging with full force. As they approached a station, a man preparing to disembark stopped to ask the woman who had rescued Shaheen, “What went down with the brother here?”
“The whites attacked him at the station downtown,” she replied.
Shaheen was amazed that she seemed to know exactly what had happened. He wasn’t sure she had seen his assailants. How did she know that he was not running from muggers? And why did she say “the whites” when it was only one group of whites who had attacked him? He wasn’t ready to indict a whole race of people for the sins of a few. But he didn’t say anything. He wasn’t feeling all that friendly to white people tonight.
Just as he was about to get off, the man remarked, “Y’all take care now. It’s getting pretty mean out there. Last week they firebombed the NAACP office up the street from here.”
When the train rolled again, the woman looked at Shaheen and said, “I’m getting off at the next stop, Dudley Station. I live near there. What are you gonna do?”
“I live near Northeastern, maybe I can catch a bus from Dudley,” Shaheen replied, but his voice sounded uncertain.
“In this weather? The way you are?” She raised her eyebrows.
“I think I’ll be all right when I get home.” That’s where he wanted to be–in his bed where he could sleep off the assault. Making sense of it all could wait. Until now, however, Shaheen had not considered how he was going to make his way back to his place.
“I’m not so sure. You don’t look so bad that you need to go to a hospital, but you still need some fixin’ up. The snow’s coming down pretty hard.” She paused for a moment, then added, “Tell you what, why don’t you come over to my place and let me help clean up your wounds?”
“You’ve already done so much. Maybe … maybe you can just help me look for a cab.” Shaheen wanted to accept her offer. She offered refuge at a moment when he couldn’t think straight about negotiating life in this alien city. During the war he’d accepted help from strangers more than once, and their kindness always touched him. But those were his people, and they had been caught up in a common fate. What did he share with this woman who’d rescued him? At the very instant he asked himself that question, he remembered that something had led him to run in the direction of the subway line to black Roxbury.
She interrupted his thoughts, “Hey, it’s the least I can do. If we didn’t look out for each other, what kind of people would we be? B’sides, this is what I do for a living—take care of folks. I work as a nurse’s aide. I can have you fixed up so that in a day or two you’ll be doin’ just fine.”
She paused for a moment, then added, almost in a slightly challenging tone, “Can you do better at home? Is there anyone there?”
Shaheen nodded his head. He would go with her. His eyes finally focused on her. She wasn’t as tall as she had first appeared. She just looked tall because of the boots on her feet, the long leather coat, and her medium Afro. When his eyes took in her face, he found himself lingering a while longer than what he considered polite. Her complexion was very dark, and both its color and sheen reminded him of the ripe skin of the kalajaam fruit he used to eat back home. There was nothing like it here in America, but they would probably call it some kind of blackberry.
“Well, that’s settled then,” she said with a smile after their eyes met.
“Thank you,” he replied, “You’re very kind.” Shaheen felt his eyes filling up with tears once more. The woman brought out a tissue and handed it to him.
“Here, use this. I imagine it’s about time we introduced ourselves to each other. My name’s Rose.”
Wiping the tears from his eyes, he replied, “I’m Shaheen. I came from Bangladesh just over a year ago. But I guess you could say that I’m still new around here.”
The train had now arrived at Dudley Station. Rose stood up and held out her hand to reach for him. As they walked out, she looked hard at him and seemed about to say something with a sly smile in her eyes. Then she shook her head and shifted her gaze away from him. Finally, she looked at him once more and let it out, “This may sound kinda cruel, and Lord knows I don’t want to hurt you any more than the hurt you’re already feeling. But since you did say you feel new around here, let me say this and get it out of my system. Welcome to Boston. The real place.”
Mahmud Rahman’s writings have appeared in
Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America
. He is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College, Oakland.